Though the Indian Coffee House is today heralded as a model for worker cooperatives and symbolic of worker’s independence around India, the coffee chain’s roots lay elsewhere.
The first outlet – then named ‘India Coffee House’ – opened in Churchgate, Mumbai in 1936, and was operated by the Indian Coffee Board. Even though coffee had been grown by Indians since the 16th century, the idea of coffee houses as they exist today was new at the time. The ‘Indianness’ of this particular chain came from the fact that most coffee houses existing at the time were British-run, and discriminated against locals.
The chain soon gained popularity, and at its height in the late 1940s and early ’50s had as many as 72 outlets around the country. However, a drop in business and change in policy caused the Coffee Board to shut down all their outlets by the mid 1950s. Around this time, popular communist leader A.K. Gopalan encouraged workers from the coffee houses to form a cooperative and take over business from the Board.
Soon, the brand was established as a worker cooperative and renamed the Indian Coffee House, with its first outlets opening in Bangalore and New Delhi in 1957. Self managed and symbolic of worker independence, the chain soon gathered momentum. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the Indian Coffee House has 400 outlets across the country, managed by 13 cooperative societies.
Among the 400 Indian Coffee Houses around the country, there are a few that are uniquely important.
Kerala is home to 51 outlets – the highest among all states – out of which quite a few are deeply historic. The outlet at Thrissur, founded in 1958, was the fourth to open in the country, and was memorably inaugurated by A.K. Gopalan.
The state of West Bengal is also home to many Indian Coffee House outlets, with its most famous on College Street, Kolkata. The outlet is primarily remembered for having served as the meeting place for 20th century intellectuals and artists, including the likes of Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen.
The Indian Coffee House in New Delhi stood at Connaught Place’s Theatre Communication Building for two decades since its opening in 1957, only to be shut during The Emergency of India during 1975-77. The outlet soon reopened at its current location, at Mohan Singh Place in Connaught Place.
Bangalore’s famous Indian Coffee House outlet stood at M.G. Road through five decades of change, only to lose a legal battle with the building owners in 2009. However, it reopened – with the same décor and ambience as was standard during the 1950s – at Church Street, to the same dedicated patronage.